Ex-spies use skills in travel 'agency' (iJet Travel Intelligence)

22 July 2002
The Record
Randy Diamond

It looks like the nerve center for some secret government spy program.

Behind the front door of a nondescript highway office complex in Annapolis, Md., intelligence analysts sit behind curving rows of computer screens in the hangar-like $2 million operations center. Large projection screens fill the front of the room, showing images of news programs from around the world.

Al Peabody used to work for the National Security Agency, Johan Selle for South African military intelligence. They now work for business travelers through iJet Travel Intelligence. The three-year- old privately held company was founded with the idea that real-time travel information can help international travelers avoid problems.

Thirty analysts man the operations center day and night, sending out alerts to business travelers' pagers, cellular phones, PDA devices, or by e-mail. The alerts cover terrorist threats, changes in entrance/exit requirements in a particular country, airport and transit strikes, and disease outbreaks.

"It's like having your own personal intelligence agency working for you," boasts Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJet Travel Intelligence. Like many in the company, McIndoe has a background in intelligence, having developed software for the National Security Agency.

His company provides services for employees of more than 120 companies and for 21,000 travel agents. The company also assists individual business travelers for a flat $25 fee, sending out alerts keyed to a traveler's itinerary in more than 150 countries around the world.

But unlike the CIA, an iJet intelligence operative won't contact you personally to give you an alert. For example, iJet sent out an alert July 5 that U.S. embassies in the central Asian republic of Turkmenistan had become targets of surveillance by potentially hostile groups. However, you would not have found out about the potential threat to your safety in real time unless you had the communications equipment that could receive the message, not a sure thing in a third-world Asian country.

IJet will rent you an international cellular phone for $7.95 a day plus air time (one week minimum), but Turkmenistan, Japan, Korea, and the nations of Latin America are not among the 130 countries in which the phones will work. Your alternative in one of those countries would be a much more costly satellite phone, which iJet also can arrange.

In some ways, iJet is ahead of its time, providing not only crucial, real-time information overseas but also the means to receive it in countries that lack the necessary communications infrastructure .

On a typical day the staff at the iJet operations center sends out 15 to 20 travel alerts. During a recent visit to iJet, the alerts issued varied: airlines in Venezuela demanding payment in U.S. dollars because of the decreasing value of the Venezuelan bolivar, the spreading outbreak of dengue fever in El Salvador, and a possible strike by security workers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

IJet also provides country-specific guidebooks offering tips on security and other travel considerations for non-subscribers, available for an $8 download fee from Amazon.com. Some of the information is available for the business traveler through other guide books. But even newly published guidebooks are often outdated by the time they hit the book store.

IJet analyst Peabody, the retired National Security Agency employee, sees much of his role as making the trip smoother for business travelers. As an example, he points to a warning in March, several days before President Bush's trip to Peru. In the warning, he let travelers know that Lima's international airport would be closed for several hours while Bush was scheduled to arrive and depart and that international flights would be diverted to Pisco air force base, 150 miles south of Lima.

"The business traveler expecting to get a cab to downtown from an isolated air force base might have had a problem," he said. "Information is power."

With knowledge of the airport closure, Peabody said you could have delayed your flight or contacted the person you were going to meet on your business trip and had them pick you up.

IJet analysts use more than 5,000 sources of information, from foreign news services to government Web sites. All information must be confirmed by two sources.

But old-fashioned personal contacts also come in handy, especially in developing countries.

Selle, the regional manager of Africa for iJet and former South African military intelligence officer, said he often must rely on some of his old intelligence sources to help him, because information from the Web is often non-existent in a number of African countries.

"In my old job I was trying to find out who the corrupt general was in Kenya," he said. "Now, I don't want to know who the corrupt general is, but which roads are navigable."

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